We are progressively featuring the concrete ships built in the USA during both World Wars, starting with World War I.
There are three discrete sections to our review of the World War I era concrete ships built in the U.S.A.
Firstly, we are covering the 'Emergency Fleet' - 12 concrete ships ordered and completed for the U.S. Shipping Board, to add both cargo and tanker capacity during World War I
Secondly, we will cover other concrete merchant ships built in the same era but outside of the Emergency Fleet programme such as 'Faith' and 'Tanker No. 1'
Thirdly, and a section that I am really looking forward to writing, 'The Concrete Riverboats' !
Over time, our website will build to provide our American followers with a factual - No Fake News & No Urban Myths - 'encyclopaedia' of the concrete ships 'Born in the USA'
The U.S. Shipping Board was established as an emergency agency by the Shipping Act (39 Stat. 729) on 7th September 1916. According to the U.S. National Archives, it was formally organised January 30, 1917 and was certainly existent when the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917.
The Shipping Act of 1916 that established the U.S. Shipping Board was not solely for wartime purposes. The declaration of war however led to the establishment of the ‘Emergency Fleet Corporation’ (EFC) to deal with ‘urgent priorities’. Shipyards were constructed for building both wooden and steel vessels in large numbers, but more ships were needed.
Scarcity of steel led to the rapid advancement of the building of ferro-concrete ships elsewhere in the World and the U.S. was no exception. Having consulted with Nicolay Fougner during late 1917, in April 1918, a U.S. concrete ship building programme was approved.
A figure of 24 is frequently quoted as the intended size of the Emergency Fleet, but this is not correct. Actually, 43 concrete merchant vessels were eventually ordered and, 12 of these were actually completed.
The ‘Concrete Ship Section’ of the EFC, made up of concrete engineers and naval architects, specified that there were essentially be two types of vessel, 3,000 & 3,500 ton cargo ships and 7,500 ton tankers. Five government shipyards were established, one in Florida, one in Alabama, one in North Carolina and two in California. You can read all about them in our Blog!
Aside from the Emergency Fleet, there were many more concrete vessels ordered, and built, during this period for other 'agencies' such as the Navy, the Inland Waterways Commission , the Army Transport and one private contract for ‘Faith'.
A 3,000 ton cargo ship, S.S Atlantus, built at Brunswick, and was the first of the Emergency Fleet to be launched. The first 3,500 ton cargo ship was S.S. Polias, built by Nicolay Fougner at Flushing Bay, New York.
Ten other concrete ships - two more 3,500 ton cargo ships and eight 7,500 ton oil tankers followed, all of them after the Armistice was signed. The remaining 31 contracts were cancelled.
You can read all about the activities of the U.S.S.B. and the Emergency Fleet Corporation in our Blog on the topic and below, they are short descriptions of the Life & Times of each of the twelve concrete ships, with links to much more comprehensive descriptions written as Blogs.
We hope you enjoy the history !
Read our Blog about this well known concrete ship at Cape May, New Jersey
Built by Norwegian Nicolay K Fougner, she came to grief off the coast of Maine
Elder sister of S.S. Sapona, she was sunk in a collision in 1919 with the loss of 19 crew
Built in San Diego, she ended her days as a breakwater at Frontera, Mexico
Built in Jacksonville, Florida, she never made a commercial voyage, but she is in Texas
Sister to S.S. Dinsmore, she ended her days in Frontera, Mexico
Beached at Aptos, S.S. Palo Alto is one of the U.S.A. best known concrete ships
Bimini's concrete ship, the subject of many myths & legends ! Myth Buster Blog !
S.S. Selma is one of the best known surviving wrecks of WWI U.S. Emergency Fleet
S.S. Peralta is with us today as a floating WWI concrete ship. Read all about her in our Blog
S.S. Latham made her last commercial voyage to Tampico, and came to grief
Cuba's own WWI concrete ship ! She played an important role in WWII
‘S.S. Atlantus’ was the first of the US Emergency Fleet concrete ships, built by Liberty Ship Building Co, Brunswick, Georgia to be launched.
She was the only ship built to the experimental EFC design 1040 and she was approximately 250 feet long and 43.5 feet wide. Her notional deadweight was 3000 tons.
On 4th December 1918 she entered the water, stern first, and was named the ‘Atlantus’ by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.
During the first half of 1919, Her Triple Expansion, 1520 ihp, steam engines were installed by American Shipbuilding Co. during the first half of 1919 and she could reach a speed of 10.5 knots.
In August 1919, she was handed over to Raporel S.S. Co., New England, to be used in the coal trade and in November 1919, after a final sea trial, S.S. Atlantus received her temporary classification document. It was 24th January 1920, when her Permanent Documentation was issued.
As explained in our very detailed Blog about S.S. Atlantus, and contrary to the Urban Myth that surrounds her, she did not make a single Trans-Atlantic voyage and she did not pick up US Troops from Europe. She was used in the New England coal trade.
Her recorded journeys are listed in our Blog but to keep it simple, she made 8 trips from her Norfolk base, travelling around 7,500 nautical miles, carrying an average of 2,000 tons of coal per trip over a period of just under 11 months before she was laid up at Norfolk and her Documentation surrendered on 25th October 1920.
The reason she was laid up was that she was expensive to run, freight rates had dropped and generally the shipping industry was in the doldrums.
She was laid up for quite a number of years until, in 1925, she was sold to H. P. Etheridge, Inc. of Norfolk, taken to Baltimore, and dismantled at a salvage yard.
In 1926, the hull of Atlantus was bought by Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld of Baltimore for usage as ferry pier by his prospective ferry corporation for landings at Cape May, New Jersey from Lewes, Delaware. She arrived on 8th June 1926 at Cape May, a date often incorrectly given as the date of her grounding.
Actually, it was 13th of July 1926 when ‘Atlantus’ was blown aground during a storm at Cape May Point. An incorrect date is not the end of the World, but Urban Myths such as S.S. Atlantus travelling the Atlantic to pick up troops - a statement proudly displayed on a sign at Cape May beach - pervert the course of history !!
Since 1926, S.S Atlantus has been battered by storms, ice flows, you name it, and it is a testimony to her strength that any of her is still visible above the water. A steel ship would have broken up long ago. Will she survive to be still visible for her Cape May centennial ? I wonder . . . .
S.S. Polias was built by the Fougner Shipbuilding Co. of Flushing Bay, New York, a company incorporated by Nicolay K Fougner
The order to build ‘Polias’ came from the Concrete Ship Section of the U.S. Shipping Board in February 1918, and construction starting in August 1918.
S.S Polias was a cargo carrier of approximately 268’ length, 46’ wide and 26’6” deep, with a Total Deadweight of 2,460 tons. Her propulsion was Triple Cylinder Steam Engine producing 1520 IHP and she was capable of 10.5 knots.
She was launched, stern first, on 22nd May 1919.
Having been launched, Polias was towed to Lord Construction Co., Field’s Point, Providence, Rhode Island for fitting of her engine, boilers, and other machinery. By 15th October 1919 she was able to proceed under her own power to New York to be dry-docked. Her registration certificate was issued on 5th December 1919.
She was chartered by the Puerto Rico Steam Ship. Co., a company that was engaged in the New England coal trade and made a number of voyages carrying coal around New England. Erlend Bonderud tracked down 4 voyages between December 1919 and February 2020 where she carried an average of over 2,000 tons of coal per trip.
On 6th February 1920, she ran aground in blizzard conditions at Old Cilley Ledge, off Port Clyde, Maine. Sadly, a number of crew members (11 or maybe 14) 'abandoned ship' against the orders of the Captain and were never seen again. The remainder of the crew were rescued the next day.
Early attempts to salvage S.S. Polias failed and by 1922, the idea was abandoned. In 1923, the wreck slipped back into deeper water although her bulkhead was still visible at low tide.
An entrepreneur, a Mr. Elliot, bought the wreck for $225 and recovered equipment and artefacts from her, some of which are now on display at the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum in Port Clyde
‘S.S. Cape Fear’ was built by the Liberty Ship Building Company, at Wilmington, North Carolina.
the first of the two identical 3,500 ships to be launched at Wilmington, her younger sister being S.S. Sapona (the subject of a detailed Blog).
She was a cargo ship, 266’ 6” long and 46 feet wide, with a hold depth of 24‘ 8” with a Gross Registered Tonnage of 2,795 tons and Net Registered Tonnage of 1,693 tons. Her propulsion was a Triple-Expansion Steam Engine, producing 1,400 IHP, and capable of between 10 and 11 knots.
Having been launched on 31st July 1919, she was fitted out and in December 1919, she was Documented at Jacksonville, Florida.
'S.S. Cape Fear' actually made a number of commercial voyages in her first few months , including travelling through the Panama Canal to Chile and back to ten to the U.S.A
Her final journey was on 29th October 1920, when she left Providence, Rhode Island, for Norfolk, Virginia, empty. Tragedy struck that day. ‘S.S. Cape Fear’ was struck by ‘City of Atlanta’ in Narragansett Bay. Due to the force of the impact, her hull was shattered, and she sank in just three minutes. 17 of her crew of 34 were lost in the sinking.
The shipwreck of ‘S.S. Cape Fear’ is lying in 180 feet of water - the victims have never been recovered.
‘S.S. Cuyamaca’ was built by Pacific Marine and Construction Co in San Diego, California, one of two concrete ships built by the company.
‘Cuyamaca’ was actually ordered as a cargo ship, but whilst under construction, she became an oil tanker ! On 12th June 1920, she was launched broadside, unusually already fitted out with her engine.
She was 420’ 7” long, with a 54 foot beam and 34’3” depth. She was 6,486 tons deadweight weight, 4,082 GRT and said to have a Bunker capacity of 685,213 gallons of fuel oil giving her a cruising radius of 7,000 miles.
Having been Documented on 15th September 1920, she was chartered by the Franco-Canada Oil Company of New York and in October 1920, she left San Diego for Tampico, Mexico, via the Panama Canal. She made a number pf trips to Tampico before being laid-up at Mobile, Alabama in March 1921.
Having been used as a oil storage hulk at New Orleans, she was acquired by the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company which was heavily involved in shipping bananas into the U.S. from Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti, Cuba, and Ecuador.
In 1932, 'Cuyamaca' was sold on to ‘Mexican interests’, who used her, along with a number of other ships, to create a breakwater at Frontera.
'S.S. Dinsmore' was the first of two concrete tankers built by A. Bentley and Sons Co., of Jacksonville, Florida for the ‘Emergency Fleet Corporation.
A. Bentley and Sons Co. had anticipated building 8 concrete tankers but in the end, just two were built, the other being 'S.S. Moffitt'.
‘Dinsmore’ was launched on 30th June 1920, incurring some damage during launch that was subsequently repaired. She was fitted out by the California Brick Company, also of Jacksonville, Florida and by 5th March 1921, she had been completed and Documented.
‘Dinsmore’ left Jacksonville on 7th March 1921 to be laid-up at Mobile, Alabama along with (at least) 'San Pasqual', 'Moffitt' , 'Latham' and 'Cuyamaca'.
She is said to have been used for ‘Oil Storage’ and in 1932, her Documents were surrendered at Mobile.
Having been dismantled during 1934, she is said to have been sold with a view to her becoming a breakwater in Texas, just like S.S. Selma.
'S.S. Moffitt' was the second and the last of two concrete tankers built by A. Bentley and Sons Co., of Jacksonville, Florida, for the ‘Emergency Fleet Corporation.
She had identical specifications to S.S. Dinsmore When she was launched broadside into the St Johns River on 28th September 1920. ‘Moffitt’ was then fitted out by the California Brick Company, Jacksonville, Florida and delivered to the U.S. Shipping Board on 12th April 1921.
Less than a week later, ‘Moffitt’ left Jacksonville for Mobile, Alabama for dry-docking. and then seemingly laid-up the same year, never having undertaken a single commercial voyage.
The shipping industry was in the doldrums at this stage in time and there was a huge amount of excess capacity. Mobile, Alabama was the destiny for quite a number of concrete ships at this juncture.
We know that in addition to ‘Moffitt’, ‘Dinsmore’, ‘San Pasqual’, ‘Latham’ and ‘Cuyamaca’ were all taken to Mobile. On 10th December 1924, ‘Moffitt’s documents were surrendered at New Orleans. She was dismantled in 1925, her valuable machinery removed.
In 1932, ‘Moffitt’ was sold to ‘Mexican interests’ to be used as a breakwater in Frontera, Mexico.
‘S.S. Peralta’ was a U.S. concrete ship, built as an Oil Tanker by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company and launched on 26th October 1920.
The company built a sister vessel, ‘S.S. Palo Alto’, and also America’s first ocean going concrete ship, ‘Faith’.
She was one of a fleet of 7,500 ton Oil Tankers commissioned by the U.S. Shipping Board in 1918.
When completed, ‘S.S. Peralta’ had Gross Registered Tonnage of 6,144 tons and Net Registered Tonnage of3,696 tons. She was 420 feet long, 54 feet wide with a depth of 35 feet. With her Triple Expansion Steam Engine, she could achieve a speed of 10.5 knots. Further details can be found in our Blog about ‘S.S. Peralta’.
In common with many of the U.S. fleet of concrete ships, her wartime purpose was never fulfilled and a combination of circumstances meant that she was never used for the purpose for which she was intended. She was dismantled in 1925, and then fitted out as a ‘fish reduction plant’ initially for use in Alaska and then for processing sardines at Richmond, California.
In 1958, MacMillan Bloedel bought ‘S.S. Peralta’ and used her, as one of a number of (World War II era) concrete ships, as part of a large floating breakwater / log boom at the Powell River Company Ltd's pulp processing plant at the Powell River, British Columbia.
‘S.S. Peralta’ is still afloat today and claims the distinction, recognised in the Guinness Book of Records, as the ‘Largest…Concrete ship still afloat’.
The location of S.S. Peralta is 49.8622, -124.5538.
If ever there was a concrete ship who’s published history has become little more than a collection Urban Myths and fiction, it is ‘S.S. Sapona’, Bimini’s ‘fabled’ concrete ship wreck !
When we decided to choose 'S.S. Sapona' as one of the ‘Ten Best World War I Concrete Ship Wrecks’, we did NOT set out to write a Myth Buster Blog but, in telling her true history, we were met by a literal torrent of fictional history (with Wikipedia, as per usual, leading the charge !)
If you read our Blog, you will discover the truth about ‘S.S. Sapona’, facts that have been carefully and meticulously researched, as indeed all our material is.
Just as a taster and hopefully not as a ‘spoiler’, we will dispel the most common Urban Myths that are propagated by almost every single post that features ‘S.S. Sapona’ :-
1. ‘S.S. Sapona’ was NOT “Commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as troop transport in World War I”
2. ‘S.S. Sapona’ was NOT “Designed by Henry Ford himself”
3. ‘S.S. Sapona’ was NOT “Bought by Bruce Bethell in 1924”
4. ‘S.S. Sapona’ was NOT “Blown five miles during a hurricane onto a reef”
5. Flight FT-19 did NOT disappear on a mission to decoy bomb ‘S.S. Sapona’
Today, the wreck of ‘S.S. Sapona’ lies in about 15 - 17 feet of crystal clear water at 25.650644, -79.293349.
In our Blog, the ‘Life & Times of S.S. Sapona’ are told with accuracy, backed up with reliable, well researched sources.
Pacific Marine and Construction Co, San Diego, California built two concrete ships – ‘Cuyamaca’ & the topic of this write-up - ‘San Pasqual ’
'San Pasqual' was built by the Pacific Marine and Construction Co, San Diego, California. She was 420’ 7” long, with a 54 foot beam and 34’3” depth. 6,486 tons deadweight weight, 4,082 Gross Registered Tonnage, she was intended for carrying Petroleum in bulk and had a cruising radius of 7,000 miles, powered by a Triple Expansion Oil Burning Steam Engine and capable of 10 knots.
In 1933, she was bought by a Cuban sugar company grounded off Cayo Francés, Cuba. She is still there today !
She played a key role during World War Iim supporting the U.S. and Cuban forces, having been
armed with anti-aircraft machine guns and rapid-fire cannons, she acted as a base for U.S.Coast Guard Cutters positioned at the stern. She acted also as the base for OS2U-3 Kingfisher hydroplanes, one of which spotted and then sank German Submarine ‘U-176’.
Legend has it that in 1958, San Pasqual was used as a temporary prison for Batista soldiers captured by Che Guevara during the battle of Santa Clara. In 1962, the counter-revolutionary group ‘Alpha-66’ attacked the San Pasqual.
'San Pasqual' has a most interesting history !
A much admired feature on the Californian coastline at Aptos is S.S. Palo Alto. She has been there since 1930 when she arrived to become a key part of the Seacliff Amusement Resort.
The story of 'S.S. Palo Alto' is deeply engrained in the social history of Aptos and almost uniquely, S.S. Palo Alto has had a book written about her - ‘Forever Facing South: The Story of the S.S. Palo Alto’ , written by David W. Heron over thirty years ago.
In our Blog, we will tell the rest of her story - the decade or so after she was launched by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company at Oakland on 29th May 1919 - and also bring her story up-to-date. At the rate she is now breaking up, the 'S.S. Palo Alto' - like 'S.S. Atlantus' at Cape May - may not be with us for that much longer. Will she make her centennial still visible at Aptos ? Only time will tell.
S.S. Palo Alto' was the first of the U.S. Shipping Board commissioned 7500-ton concrete oil tankers for the Emergency Fleet to be launched. Indeed, it took just 94 days after the date of the first concrete pouring on 20th January 1919 for her to be launch ready.
So, if you would like to know about her build, launch, working career and how she came to be at Aptos, you can find it here, as you can for all the concrete ships built in the U.S.A. in the World War I era.
S.S. Palo Alto' was the first of the U.S. Shipping Board commissioned 7500-ton concrete oil tankers for the Emergency Fleet to be launched. It took just 94 days after the date of the first concrete pouring on 20th January 1919 for her to be launch ready.
'SS Selma’ was launched from the Fred T. Ley shipyard at Mobile, Alabama, on 28th June 1919, ironically on the same day as the Treaty of Versailles was signed and World War I officially ended. Ironic in that it was the end of World War I that essentially put an end to the concrete ship building programme.
Documented on 6th May 1920, two days later, she made her maiden voyage from Mobile, Alabama, to Tampico, Mexico to pick up 42,000 barrels of crude oil, to be taken to Philadelphia.
It was on this voyage on 17th May 1920 that disaster struck ‘S.S. Selma’, when she grounded on the rocks of the jetty and breakwater at the entrance of Tampico harbor.
Having suffered a 60' gash in her hull, she was patched up with temporary repairs and strengthened, and then towed to Galveston, Texas with compressed air was being continuously pumped into her holed tanks to keep her afloat. 4 days later, she arrived at Galveston.
She was never properly repaired and she never sailed again
On 9th March 1922, ‘S.S. Selma’ was refloated by the use of compressed air, taken to the designated location off Pelican Island and then scuttled in a purpose dredged trough.
For more than a century, 'S.S. Selma' has been the scene for any amount of interesting social history.
‘S.S. Latham’ is the last, but not the least, in our 12 part series about the U.S. Shipping Board’s concrete ‘Emergency Fleet’ of World War I, part of our 'Born in the U.S.A.' series.
In some amazing twist of fate, 'S.S. Latham' grounded at Tampico, just like her elder sister, 'S.S. Selma' , just a few weeks later in July 1920.
Her maiden voyage from Mobile, Alabama to Tampico, Mexico went fine, and she picked up 42,000 barrels of crude oil and took her cargo to Philadelphia. Returning then to Tampico, with a cargo of steel oil pipes on her deck, she contrived to ground on the breakwater at entrance to Tampico harbour just a few hundred feet from where 'S.S. Selma' had grounded in May 1920.
Having been repaired at Tampico, she made a voyage, without cargo, to Galveston for further repairs and then on to Mobile, where she was laid up.
Having been used as a oil storage tanker in New Orleans, she ended her days being sunk as a breakwater at Frontera, Mexico.
‘Faith’ was the first large scale, seagoing concrete ship built in the USA. At the time of her completion she was by far the largest concrete ship in the world, built by San Francisco Shipbuilding Co. of Redwood City, California.
Construction of ‘Faith’ started in September 1917 and on 14th March 1918, she was launched at Oakland.
She was 320’ long and 44’6” wide with a deadweight capacity of 4,500 tons, powered by a 1,700 ihp oil powered steam engine.The installation of the engines, boilers and other equipment was started right away and it took just 44 days to complete her, ready for her sea trials which she passed with flying colours.
You can read a lot more about the construction and launch of 'Faith' in our Blog
She left San Francisco on May 22nd 1918 with a cargo of rock salt and copper ore, bound for Seattle, on the trip surviving eighty mile an hour gales and waves of 35 feet high. Many voyages followed and she journeyed to many Atlantic and Pacific ports including countries such as Chile, Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.
In the summer of 1919, she travelled across the Atlantic, arriving in London on 20th August 1919, the first concrete ship ever to make a trans-Atlantic crossing, returning to the USA in September 1919.
By 1920, the shipping industry was in the doldrums and, due to being heavier than her steel equivalents, she was more expensive to run. Despite having a fine track record, by August of 1921 she was effectively laid up in New Orleans, where she was put up for sale in order to pay the crew’s wages.
There were no buyers interested in her as a working ship, and she was ‘sold for a song’ in December 1921, to be dismantled. Having been stripped of all machinery, equipment and fittings, she was left on the river for a decade
In 1932, her hulk was towed to a river in Mexico where she was scuttled as embankment in the Grijalva River.
Read the remarkable story of a concrete ship, built at Wilmington, Virginia, by the Newport Shipbuilding Company.
This ship, launched as 'Tanker No. 1', became known as ‘Monte Carlo’ and after leading something of a nefarious life, ended up wrecked on the beach at Coronado, California.
Newport Shipbuilding Corporation of New Bern, North Carolina built both concrete Riverboats and concrete Tankers. One of the Riverboats still floats today, known simply as 'The Boat' and located at Fort Walton Beach, Florida. She is one of our featured concrete boats in 'Ten Floating Concrete Centenarians' blog series.
It took over a year to build ‘Tanker No. 1’, launched in September 1921 after the pouring of concrete starting in June 1920. With an overall length of 310 feet 3 inches and 44 feet wide, she was fitted with a Babcok & Wilcox 1350 HP steam engine and completed in mid 1922. She was initially deployed by United States Army Quartermaster and in 1923, sold to the Associated Oil Company of San Francisco and renamed ‘McKittrick’.
In 1932, she was sold again and converted into a Prohibition busting gambling ship renamed ‘Monte Carlo’. Her Life & Times as the Monte Carlo are told in our Blog series covering 'Ten WWI Concrete Ship Wrecks'
After a number of years providing nefarious pleasures, on 1st January 1937, ‘Monte Carlo’ ran aground on the beach at Coronado. Over time, her hulk disintegrated and became buried in the sand - but, on occasions, El Niño shifts the sand and she surfaces to remind us of her past.
Why wait ? You can learn all about her past here